Saturday, February 14, 2015

After Brian Williams

I'm not an ABC Nightly News watcher. It's not just that, for my generation, no one quite comes close to replacing Walter Cronkite, although that is more true than it should be. The fact  is I get my news at 6:00 a.m. from NPR's Morning Edition and at 7:00 p.m. from The PBS Newshour, supplemented on Friday evenings by Washington Week (which has survived the test of time well since I first started watching it as a grad student in the 1970s in the glory days of Watergate). In between, I read The NY Times (on-line, unfortunately), read this or that blog or column and maybe catch some CNN. That's enough! The traditional evening newscast is a venerable institution that by al means ought to be preserved. It should also have more news and less of whatever it is that it has so much of.

So I really have no strong feelings about Brian Williams as an anchor. From what little I've seen, he seems like a nice enough guy, who probably was a good reporter in his day and successfully climbed the news industry's greasy pole to the coveted anchor desk, thanks to whatever combination of talent, personality, good looks, and good luck that climb calls for. Personally, I hope he survives the latest contretemps reasonably intact.

Memory is a funny thing. Of course, we can - and do - distort our memories by conscious amendments (sometimes called lies). But the process is often more complicated, as we all increasingly remember things the way we would like to remember them, the way we wished they might have happened, etc. It's a familiar phenomenon, for example, that more people remember voting for the winning candidate in an election than actually did so. After JFK's assassination, famously, many more people remembered having voted for him than had actually done so. Retelling earlier incidents in our lives lends itself almost automatically to embellishment, if not outright distortion.

How seriously all of this should be treated depends, I suppose, on the case. Clearly, most of us are not news reporters, for whom accuracy would seem to be an absolute prerequisite. So perhaps the standards ought to be much higher in this case, if we are to have any confidence at all in the accuracy of what we hear on the news. We live in a culture quite different form that of Walter Cronkite's time. We live in a society where a hermeneutic of suspicion surrounds authorities of all sorts. People once trusted government, churches, the media, etc. They certainly trusted their physicians, when they told them to vaccinate their children! Now distrust reigns where trust once ruled. Much of that came about as a response to misbehavior and lying on the part of many in authority. Meanwhile the media, especially in our post-Watergate world, have elevated cynicism and distrust to a sort of ersatz virtue. But meanwhile we as individuals and as a society are much the worse off as a result.

Whether all that means Williams deserves the extreme penalty of losing his job is, of course, another question. Not every offense ought to be a capital crime. Perhaps, as David Brooks ("The Act of Rigorous Forgiving," NY Times, February 10, 2015) for one has recently suggested, there ought to be someplace for forgiveness in society's response.

(To read Brooks' actual article, go to:

I agree with Brooks that the way we respond to so many scandals these days is indeed "barbaric." He writes "When somebody violates a public trust, we try to purge and ostracize him. A sort of coliseum culture takes over leaving no place for mercy." In my opinion, this is the flip-side, so to speak, of our contemporary culture's unwillingness to hold itself and one another to any serious moral standards on most matters. On so many important issues, we have become pathologically non-judgmental, which we make up for by being pathologically over-judgmental on the things our reigning liberal orthodoxy disapproves of. 

Important as that issue is, however, Brooks' lengthy argument about forgiveness is not what interested me most about his article. Rather it was his initial diagnosis of the precipitating circumstance that intrigued me. "The sad part is the reminder that no matter how high you go in life and no matter how many accolades you win, it's never enough. The desire for even more admiration races ahead. Career success never really satisfies. Public love always leaves you hungry. Even very famous people can do self-destructive things in an attempt to seem just a little cooler."

Indeed, don't we all? Isn't that what so much of our professional and relational lives is about? I dare say it isn't just famous people who are tempted to want to seem "cooler." (That word "cool" is another one of those contemporary expressions we would do well to exorcise completely form our vocabularies.) 

What Brooks' remarks tap into is the increasing vacuousness of what passes for fame, for popularity, for success, etc., in our morally empty society. The human desire for love is infinite and can never be fully or completely satisfied by any human response. (Perhaps Valentine's Day is an especially appropriate day to be saying this!) Finding fulfillment in human love and relationships that are generally mutual and life-giving is the challenge of a lifetime. Finding substitutes in superficial vanities like fame, popularity, success, etc., inevitably is, as Brooks, says, "never enough." 

Ultimately, as Saint Augustine so famously said: Fecisti nos ad te et cor nostrum inquietum est donec requiescat in te. ("You [God] have made us for yourself and our heart is restless until it rests in you.") A society which is premised on finding fulfillment anywhere and everywhere else puts itself on a path of permanent seeking without ever finding.

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